Andrew Zimmern on Pig-Face Soup, 'American' Food, and Hating the Name of His Show
Andrew Zimmern has most people's dream job. As a food and travel show host, work requires him to jet off to stunning locales around the world to eat foods that range from incredibly delicious to incredibly adventurous.
On the newest season of his show Bizarre Foods, which Zimmern has been hosting since 2006, he feasts on dishes like pig-face soup, deer haggis, and something known as "cowboy sushi," while traveling across places like Spain, Scotland, and Hawaii.
Thrillist caught up with Zimmern earlier this month to talk to him about everything from his favorite fast food spots (spoiler: he loves fried chicken restaurants), to the words he refuses to use on his show anymore, and why he is getting back in the restaurant business. Bizarre Foods airs Tuesdays at 9pm EST/PT on Travel Channel.
Really quickly, before we jump into the more serious stuff, how do you feel about dessert hummus? It's basically just chickpeas with sprinkles and honey.
No, you can't do that! That's not a good one. The addition of the tahini, that sesame flavor, that nut taste, is so important to start to bridge the savory and other sweet flavors that you pile in there. I essentially had a very tahini-rich hummus with a grape juice syrup in the Muslim quarter in Jerusalem the last time I was there that was essentially a dessert hummus. I crushed the whole thing. Now I make it all the time. It's like peanut butter and jelly hummus.
Well see that version I would totally eat. You are about to drop a new season of Bizarre Foods, congrats! Can you explain the theme of this season which is a bit unique?
All seven episodes this season have a very pinpointed, geographic, historical route that it follows. This is everything from the Pony Express, William Wallace in Scotland, Captain Cook in Hawaii, Battle of the Bulge, the Santiago de Compostela, the Camino in Spain, where people go make the pilgrimage to see St. John and his tomb, the Underground Railroad show and what I call our NASCAR show. It's really about moonshiners to NASCAR and how if you travel from one end of the state to the other, you can actually move in time from the world of the moonshiners to the billion-dollar world of NASCAR.
"Every week I find myself in a different pinch-me sort of situation."
What was the best thing you ate this season?
Every week I find myself in a different pinch-me sort of situation. So it's hard to pick. In Hawaii, we went out on these incredible canoe rafts that the locals actually use to surf down 40-foot swells. I went fishing with old hand-lines with some of the folks there, and brought up surprising species of fish. There's a fish called a "goat fish" there, that you'll never find on a restaurant menu, you'll never find it in a fish store, you've got to be with the right locals. It's caught fairly close to land. But when it's grilled over wood fire, the meat is firm and smoky, but it tastes as sweet as crab. It's so unusual.
Two weeks later, I was in Scotland and eating deer haggis cooked by Nicola Clarke, the Julia Child of Scotland. Then in the Santiago de Campostela in Spain, we went to a home where they cooked this eight-course meal with pig-face soup. You boil the pig head to get this broth, then you make all the other dishes with the broth, and then you eat the pig head, but you also eat the rest of the pig, and you eat chorizo and potatoes that are boiled together, and these wild turnip greens that are sauteed with the pig fat and garlic. I don't know how to say one is better than the other.
Fair! You eat a lot of interesting stuff for a living. How do you eat during your downtime?
I'm endlessly curious. There's no un-douchey way to say this, but I don't think I would have the level of success that I've had if I was like a part-timer. 99% of television in the lifestyle category is hosted by people that don't actually live their brand away from their TV show. They're TV hosts. If the cameras weren't rolling, I'd be doing a lot less of what I do now, because I couldn't afford it, but I'd still be doing everything that I'm doing. I'm always driving two hours to go find some goofy meal somewhere that somebody is making, or to check out some cool cultural totem that I'm interested in.
But I also spend so much time on the road and so much time moving so quickly that I, you know, I like to just collapse at home and make simple things. The other night I made a big farmer's market salad with julienned fennel bulbs and tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs from the garden, and a local sheep's milk cheese that I crumbled in it. Grilled some beef, and just had that sort of typical summer meal. That's my favorite kind of evening.
With access to some of the best food in the world, do you ever eat at chains? Got any favorites?
Shake Shack now has 175 locations around the world, so I think they qualify. I think that's the best chain burger experience that you can have. I absolutely adore fried chicken chains and love Popeyes. It's hard to walk away from one. I was also just in Birmingham and I got a chance to go back to a Church's Fried Chicken. I mean, that's dirty good. I also love Culver's. Insanely good custard. I love their coleslaw and their green beans.
When I'm in the South, I'm a big gas station food aficionado. Gas stations in the Southeast cook a lot of food from scratch. Fried chicken, fried livers, Kool-Aid pickles, you know? Gas stations and convenience stores in Louisiana are often the best places to find cracklings and po' boys.
You've traveled the world but seem to have a particular affinity for the American South.
Yes, I’m frequently shooting television in the South for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I believe that the most fascinating food culture in America. It is maybe the one that best defines us — the food of the Southeast.
Why do you think Southeastern food is what defines "American food"?
When I compare that to the foods of the southeastern United States and start to look at the southern table and the influence of enslaved Africans, the influence of Creole Indians, Native Americans, Central Americans, other immigrant populations that arrived in the last 60 to 70 years; when you look at the foods as far north as Appalachia and all the way to the Deep South, down to the Gulf, you essentially have America's cucina povera, right?
I think in that cucina povera, when I look around the world, is the root of all identifiable, culturally important cuisine. When you look at how the food of the South is served — large portions, working man's food, big enough pots to feed visitors and guests, the role of hospitality, the role of frugality — you start to add all these things up. It's almost impossible not to be convinced that all those things are why the food of the Southeast is having its moment now; but by the same token, I think I would make the argument that that is America's food, more so than the overly Europeanized food-style of the Northeast or other regional cuisines around the country.
"I wish I could change the name of the show."
Do you think that will ever change?
100 years from now, we may be having a much different conversation, you know, as population shifts and change. I believe that the food that comes out of Mexico, with its 26 states and all its regions, that and Chinese food are the two most highly developed cuisines in the world for depth and breadth. You can't argue with the fact that everyone loves Mexican food in all 50 states. There's great Mexican food on the North Pole in research stations up there. I mean, I've eaten it.
I think right now, and I'm not saying this is a good thing. I'm just saying it's a fact. We love Mexican food the same way people who eat it love Ethiopian food, but we don't like the people in America. I think that's criminal. It's awful. Right now in 2018, the food that's coming out of the Southeast is the one that's most accepted, both on the table, and who's making it.
I mean, this starts to get into some really delicate language. Important conversations, but I think it's the conversation we're going to be having for the next 20 years.
Speaking of language, has the vocabulary you’ve used on the show changed at all over the years?
I’ve made it a point to change my language the last two years, because words matter. I never use the word "ethnic eats" anymore, or "hole-in-the-wall" when it refers to a restaurant. […] My name is on the show. If I can't stand behind every word and everything we do in that show, I won't do it.
I think the biggest challenge has come with the thousands of reruns that are out there. In any show we've done in the last year, I have used the term "enslaved African," not "slave"; but shows from 10 years ago, we use the word "slave." It's very hard because a lot of people have trouble discerning the old from the new. We live in this "gotcha" culture of social media, so I've had to let go of some of that. I just need to know at the end of the day, when my head hits the pillow, that I've done the right thing and fought the good fight.
Does this mean you regret the name of your show, Bizarre Foods, which implies that foods from other cultures, are, well "bizarre?"
If I could rename the show, I would rename it tomorrow.
I wish I could change the name of the show, but the brand has so much identity. I think people understand. I haven't eaten a bug on that show in five years. I've changed the show into what I always wanted it to be. When I first started the show and we were trying to name it, Bizarre Foods was not the name of the show. I had some really bad names. One of the shows titles I threw out there was “The Wandering Spoon.” Thank God that didn’t happen.
When I looked in the dictionary under the under "bizarre,” the secondary definition was "unusual or interesting." I've hung onto that for the last 12 years because I do believe in telling unusual and interesting stories. It is unusual and interesting, and it allows me to redefine the word bizarre.
Where hasn’t the show taken you yet that you’d love to get to one day?
I want to go to Pakistan. I want to go to Iran. I want to go to Afghanistan. I want to go to Czechoslovakia. I want to go back to China. I want to go back to Northern Japan. I want to go to Uruguay and Paraguay, selfishly so I can cross visiting all of South America off my list, but also because they're fascinating cultures. I want to spend a lot more time in Africa. Africa's a really magical place. I feel very at peace and I feel very connected there. There's so much of it I haven't explored.
That was my next question. Is there a region of the world that you think is particularly under-covered in general by the media? I have a feeling your answer might be Africa for this.
I feel like I'm on the Newlywed Game. In fact, my answer is Africa.
We don't tell stories about Africa because we live in a society that for the most part is still very, very, very race-divided. There is a very large element of our society that is still very racist. There is a difference. Africa — as a continent and its people — have been dehumanized. We have created language around how we talk about Africa that negatively impacts the interest in it, which is criminal because this is the continent that anthropologists believe we all walked out of.
As someone who has been there, I don't know, 40 times, one of the most fascinating, diverse and inspiring places on the planet with people that I have learned more from than any other place in the world. Again, it's like as Americans we all love Mexican food, but the jury is out on Mexicans. I mean, what the fuck? The same thing with Africa. You don't need to talk to me about how culturally we have disenfranchised ourselves from the truth about that amazing place, the amazing countries and peoples that are there.
Thank God for the amazingly resilient, smart African people up and down that huge landmass because the colonial experience in Africa should've destroyed those countries and those societies and fragmented them into smithereens, and yet here they stand today. It is a very, very complex situation over there. And all of that being said: the welcome, the grace, the learning. I’ve had life-changing experiences in Senegal, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, you name it.
Is there a type of cuisine that you would like to see become more prevalent in the United States? Is there something that you feel like people are missing out on here?
Well, there's so much. A lot of it can't be replicated here But the American chef, about 12 years ago, started changing. Everyone became focused on utilizing and honoring aspects of other cuisines in a way that we had never done before in the previous 300 years of American cooking combined.
I think part of the reason is shows like Tony's [Ed. Note: He is referring to Anthony Bourdain, the beloved television host who passed away in June.], and shows like mine that chefs and industry people watch. So, they would see these foods and then they'd start playing around with them and recreating and taking trips to those countries to see what the food was all about. That trend really didn't exist until 10, 12 years ago. So, I feel like there's people out there rediscovering.
I think the things that you're gonna see more and more of is: I think Indonesian cuisine is ready to have it's moment in the sun. I would like to see regional Indian food, Pakistani food, central Asian food start to get a little more exposure because they're just fantastic.
Iraqi food and Egyptian food are some of the most delicious cuisines and yet, I think, because of other issues in our culture, we're not ready to eat those foods. So, I have a lot more work cut out for me to show people how delicious those foods are, but more importantly, how amazing those people are.
You are jumping back into the restaurant business and opening a place in your hometown of Minneapolis called Lucky Cricket. Why a Chinese concept?
I adore Chinese food. I came up with a good concept. It's Chinese food with a little tiki bar kicker and I'm really excited about it.
We have had three big waves of Chinese immigration in this country, but a lot of the people that came into the West Coast and built railroads and worked in a variety of other industries. Because of The Exclusion Act, forbidding them from working for other people, they started opening laundromats and restaurants. The cheapest things, at the time, to sort of get into.
And even though there's more Chinese restaurants in America than Burger Kings, McDonald's, and KFCs combined, the vast majority of Chinese cooks in America, of which there are tens of thousands, toil in anonymity.
I just thought it was time. But I also chose that very particularly because I wanted to make the invisible visible.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.